Toni Prince doing what she loves on her horse farm.

Sometimes it feels like things don’t change, until they do. Generations of children have grown up in Union Village, and many have enjoyed the routine of a walk to see the horses at the Gregory and Toni Prince’s farm. But this year – both at the age of 84 – the Princes decided to sell their farmhouse and land.

“In hindsight, we probably should have done this two or three years ago,” Gregory said. “All the chores and upkeep of the farm were proving too much for us.” Many times, in the middle of winter, in the snow, you would see Gregory out mending fences or moving manure with his tractor. He would always be so welcoming and friendly, though you could tell he must have been freezing. “Our grown children have been pushing us for a while to downsize,” he added.

The Princes’ homestead is an idyllic landmark that shouts “rural Vermont” and welcomes you to Union Village in Norwich. Since 1970, when Gregory and Toni Prince bought their horse farm, Toni has been teaching generations of local young people to ride.

Toni Prince doing what she loves on her horse farm.

Horses have always been a huge part of Toni’s life. She started teaching horseback riding at ten years old in her home state of Virginia. Toni ended up not finishing college; instead, she focused on building a very successful business as a riding instructor for youth. Many of her students over the years have gone on to win championships and compete at high levels in various competitions.

When the Princes recently sold their farmhouse and the land and paddocks to the family of a builder, he built them a very cute little house right next to their old one. It has panoramic views of the horse pastures and the cows up over the Connecticut river on Campbell Flats. It has a screened-in porch and will soon have an outdoor patio. The house is filled with Toni’s antiques and is like a mini version of the main house they just sold. The one missing element is a Golden Labrador. Over the years, Gregory and Toni have had several Labradors; they would wander out to the road as visitors walked by. The pair aren’t sure if they will get another dog, though it is hard to imagine the Princes without one.

Gregory and Toni Prince in their new home

I went to visit the Princes in their new home. I have known them for over forty years. Both of my daughters learned how to ride with Toni. My youngest daughter, Katie, said, “I have always thought she is such a kind woman and have been amazed by her dedication to her horses and to teaching children to love horses as she does. Her love for her horses is infectious and she grew a love for horses in me. She is someone I will always remember.”

When I arrived, they were sitting by a lovely fire in their new home. They appeared very comfortable in their new surroundings. There is a wonderful chemistry between the two – a real affection for each other. They are childhood sweethearts, after all.

When the Princes came to Norwich together in their early 20s, they had opened a new chapter in their lives on the farm. They’ve now been together for over 60 years, and as one chapter closes, another one opens. I asked them what led them to sell their farm but stay nearby. Toni was adamant that she was not going to go into senior housing; she wanted to “age in place”. They had sold two of the horses to the new owners of the farm, but were keeping two.

Gregory, on the other hand, felt that he would have been quite content to move into a senior living community. He is perhaps the more outgoing and social one of the couple, and he may have found the social opportunities of a senior home stimulating. Over the years, Gregory has been a facilitator, helping Toni with the farm and the horses. He’s not as passionate about horses as Toni, but as Toni’s riding business helped fund Gregory’s intellectual pursuits at Stanford and Yale, he shows his appreciation by being a real trooper – helping with a lot of the chores and standing by Toni’s side.

Gregory mentions a recent article he read about the problem of older Americans aging in large houses that they could no longer keep up. For the Princes, it was not so much the upkeep of the house, but all of the upkeep needed to keep the horse farm operational. 

Coco Yehle practicing her jumping at the Princes’ farm

One of Toni’s favorite hobbies is collecting antiques. She manages two booths, one in Quechee and one in Chester, Vermont. The old house was always full of beautiful antiques and many of them adorn the new house. “The [antique] business has really changed. So much of it is now online and some of the prices are outrageous,” Toni said. The basement of the new house is where Toni keeps her antique acquisitions.

Gregory has had a life in academia. He directed summer programs at Dartmouth College, was the president of Hampshire College, and published a book on education. He is still active as a Board member of a Charter School in Washington, D.C., and he holds some strong opinions on the profession of education and the lack of support for front line workers (worthy of another article).

I talked with the Princes about how Union Village has changed in the 54 years since they moved here. They told me about the old store in Union Village and the dance hall. There have been very few new buildings in the Village since– Bernie Benn’s house being the only one we could think of. “There have been decades when there were hardly any children in the Village. Now, this Halloween, as the Princes handed out goodies to the neighborhood children, they witnessed just how many youngsters live in the village – 11 and counting, said Toni.

Toni has touched the hearts and minds of hundreds of young children during her time teaching. Ella Swett, a Norwich resident and a freshman at Kimball Union Academy, has been a riding student of Toni’s since she was seven. Ella has been riding Adonis, who came to the Princes’ stables after a difficult life. I put Ella on the spot and asked her what she liked about Toni’s teaching style.

Ella Swett started riding with Toni Prince at age 7

“Well, I think Mrs. Prince teaches in a way that you suddenly realize what you have learned. It’s not really a trick but it’s not always immediately apparent what you are learning,” she said. “I think she commands respect and in turn gives it. She provides a safe environment in which to learn and grow – a home away from home. She definitely inspires us and she is one of the people I most admire in the world. She has high expectations of us that push us to learn and grow.”

Ella thinks that horses will probably be in her future life in some capacity. She doesn’t think she will compete, but she has a love of working with rescue horses and gaining their trust and confidence.

Coco Yehle is the 12-year-old daughter of the family moving into the Princes’ house and farm. Her father built the Princes’ new home and plans to remodel the old farmhouse.

“I’ll wake up every morning and be able to look out and see the horses,” Coco said with excitement. Coco’s mother, Crystal Piffath, will be co-teaching with Toni. Coco has no concerns about the transition; she loves taking care of the horses working with Toni who gives her great advice. Coco loves jumping and has a goal to compete in the Olympics, and she would also love to own a breeding and lesson farm someday.

There is no doubt that Toni Prince has had a profound impact on these two young ladies and all of her riding students over the years.

Ella with her favorite horse, Adonis

As a new chapter unfolds for the Princes, Gregory acknowledges that it’s a little scary. Touch wood, they are both relatively healthy. Gregory was acutely ill a few years ago and had the good fortune to be able to use the services of the local emergency squad and the community nurse. Toni has had some joint replacements and broke her foot. As more elderly Vermonters decide to “age in place”, vital services like a community nurse, community transportation, and care services are important resources to lean on. Toni and Gregory are still able to drive, and they have the love and support of friends and their two grown children. And, when they look out the windows of their new home, the Princes will still see their four legged friends in the paddocks just over yonder.

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